Aug 31

Leadership and Listening

by Sargent Shriver Peace Institute | 08/31/2020 3:05PM | Quote of the Week | Public Service | War on Poverty

Leadership and Listening

Leadership and Listening


Our Quote of the Week reminds us that the ability to listen is of fundamental importance for our leaders. It allows them to connect with people, to develop empathy, and to be guided in their decision-making by the needs of the people they serve.

In 1976, Sargent Shriver was a Democratic candidate for President, and this quote is from a public meeting he attended at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke these words at the very beginning of his remarks, adding:

"One of the tragedies of our current political system is that once the President and Vice President get elected – and they are, after all, the only two people in our whole system elected by all the people – once they’re elected they never get to talk to anybody again, except so called experts: technocrats, bureaucrats, diplomats. They never get to talk, or listen, directly to the people. So I am listening to the people as well as talking."

Sargent Shriver goes on to describe a powerful experience he had on the campaign trail in Mississippi, when an African American woman approached him to mention that she was working on his campaign and to thank him for having given her her first job. Hearing this, Sargent Shriver tells her that he's happy he could have done that, and he asks her: "What was it [the job]?" This simple gesture of interest and curiosity about the woman unlocks an extraordinary tale about her life: she had been a driver for Head Start, and with the money she put aside from her work, she had expanded her home and regularly hosted groups of elderly, poor African American community members who were in need of shelter and care. They then had the following exchange:

"I said, Let me understand again, are you telling me that you have eighteen destitute elderly Black men and women living in your home? 

She said, Yes.

I said, Well how can you do that? 

And she said, That’s what I used the Head Start driver’s money for. 

She said, Well, I took the money that was paid to me as a salary and built an addition on to my house. 

I said: Are people there now? 

She said Yes. 

I said: Where do you live? 

She said, Well I’m about five or ten minutes from here. 

I said, Could I visit your home?"

We encourage you to visit our website to learn more about Sargent Shriver's experience with this remarkable woman. We will reveal that he did indeed visit her home, where met other extraordinary people who reminded him of "the fantastic qualities that are so widespread among the American people; qualities of generosity and altruism, imagination, initiative, competence".

This anecdote from 1976 gives us a glimpse into how listening to people and learning about their lives shaped Sargent Shriver's values and his work. Shriver's life-long mission to serve others is rooted in the idea that people must be supported on their own terms. It is impossible -- for our leaders, or for any of us -- to do this without the ability to listen.

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